We may want to know their gender or think we need to know their gender to use a pronoun, but it honestly does not matter.
Kids do a lot of embarrassing things.
They pick their noses, they tell everyone waiting in line that mom has jiggly thighs, they throw milk across the room when the mood strikes.
But there is one thing that parents can, and should, stop being embarrassed by. This question: "Is that a boy or a girl?"
Most parents will respond to this question the same way my mother did, with a too tight hand squeeze and a "SHHHH!!!" later followed by an explanation that we are not allowed to ask those things.
I never really understood the response, but the message was clear: There is shame around this topic. We don’t talk about that in polite company. You should continue to be confused about this.
Perhaps it is time to consider another way to talk about gender with our kids.
As visibility increases for people all over the gender spectrum with more representation in media and more empowerment in the world, let’s think about wiser ways to approach this. And hey, maybe we could actually answer our kids’ questions about gender, too.
As a sex and sexuality educator and mom of seven, I have had lots of conversations with people all over the gender spectrum. After years of these conversations, I have some tips for how to talk about gender with your kids. Here they are:
1. Gender almost never matters.
There is a gender-nonconforming person who works at a store we go to frequently. Yesterday, I was asked:
"Mommy, is that a boy or a girl?"
"It doesn't matter."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that this person helps us in the store, so we don't need to know if they are a boy or a girl.”
"OK, but, like, when would we need to know?"
"If we were looking for someone to donate sperm or ovaries."
"But that is almost never going to happen."
"And we almost never need to know if someone is a boy or a girl."
Indeed, we almost never need to know the gender of any people. We may want to know their gender or think we need to know their gender to use a pronoun, but it honestly does not matter.
If someone is helping you in a store, you don’t need to know their gender any more than you need to be sure of their race or religion.
2. Every person gets to write their own gender story.
That is it. It is really that simple.
This is not about what you think someone should be, what they look like, or what makes you feel more comfortable. This is about allowing every human the dignity to define themselves in all ways, including gender. If a person decides they identify as a girl for example, who are you to tell them they are wrong?
If my child says, "But that person doesn’t look like a boy," I just let them know: That’s what this boy looks like.
If my child asks, "What a person really is," I just let them know: They are the person they say they are. Done.
3. Navigating pronouns is tricky.
Our language makes it difficult to leave gender out of the equation. Thankfully, first-person pronouns are gender-neutral, so you can tell your children that they can use those when speaking directly to a person.
If they are referring to someone, and they are unclear about which pronoun to use, let them know they can just ask the person. Letting young people know that there is no shame in clarity goes a long way in recognizing that there is no shame in not necessarily being able to place someone in one of the two narrowly defined gender categories.
If asking is off the table for whatever reason, let your child know they can use "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Maybe this will become the norm, or maybe language will change when attitudes shift, but this works for now.
4. It's important to validate all choices.
These conversations may leave your kids wondering if they need to put more thought into what their gender is. And maybe they do, but maybe they don’t. If this is a concern, you have opened up a nice door for them to walk through and have a conversation. But if they feel like the gender they were assigned at birth feels good to them and they want to be that gender and use those pronouns, that is certainly a valid choice, too.
It is important to let our kids know that people with gender differences often deal with a lot of hate and rejection. It's important to be a good friend and ally to them.
5. Encourage understanding, always.
Children may not be able to make sense of this. They may ask challenging questions like "Why can’t she just be a girl who likes boy clothes? Why change?" or "How can you not feel like what you are? I don’t get it."
Those are real questions that may be difficult for you to answer, especially if you are someone who identifies with your assigned gender or have never known another person who thinks differently about gender. Still, encourage kids to explore. Ask questions to those who feel comfortable answering them. Read books like "The Sissy Duckling." Find stories from real people relating their experiences.
Because ultimately, there is one very important message to send:
You don’t have to understand another person’s heart to honor and respect them. That is what we need more of in this world.